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Ethics Acts

One and a half cheers are due the House Committee on Standards of Official for the diligent work of its investigative subcommittee in probing allegations that Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) was threatened and offered bribes to secure his vote on Medicare in November 2003. Three cheers aren’t deserved because the committee failed to draw bright lines on what conduct does and doesn’t violate House rules, especially on the part of powerful figures like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Moreover, the ethics committee is poised to lose more points if it doesn’t act this week on a broad set of allegations filed against DeLay by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). The committee failed to appoint an investigative subcommittee and has been sitting on Bell’s complaint since June. Suspicions arise that the committee intends to do nothing this year, on the bet that, once Bell leaves Congress, no other Democrat will revive the charges.

Last week the ethics committee officially admonished Smith, DeLay and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) for their conduct on the floor in the crazy wee hours of Nov. 22, 2003, when GOP leaders called a vote on the must-pass (for them) Medicare prescription drug bill at 3 a.m. and held the vote open for an inexcusable (to us) nearly three hours until they could round up a bare majority.

Afterwards, Smith charged repeatedly that he’d been offered money and political support for the campaign of his son, Brad, to succeed him if the elder Smith were to vote for the bill — and that he’d been threatened if he didn’t. The ethics committee took its sweet time — until March — before appointing a four-member investigative subcommittee. But that panel conducted an intensive, six-month probe of the case, formally deposing 17 people. The bipartisan subcommittee was headed by Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.).

The subcommittee concluded that DeLay improperly had promised to endorse Brad Smith, that Miller improperly threatened to work to defeat him and that Rep. Smith exaggerated by making claims that he’d been offered $100,000 for his son’s campaign.

The report says that all three Members’ “conduct could support a finding” that they violated the House rule against bringing discredit upon the chamber. But in each case, the committee declined to follow up, which might have involved stronger action than admonishment. The issue is especially important in the case of a powerful figure like DeLay. The committee found that it was “improper” for DeLay “to offer or link support for the personal interests of another Member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal,” but declined to find him guilty of violating House rules because he did not realize he acted improperly.

Bell has charged DeLay with multiple offenses, from improperly raising corporate funds to support Texas re-redistricting to trading votes for money on energy legislation. In past cases, outside counsel were appointed to investigate charges against Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Yet in DeLay’s case, the ethics committee has done nothing. So far.

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